help wanted

What a dearth of teachers means for a school in a one-stoplight Colorado town

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

OTIS — Late last spring, after five of her two dozen teachers resigned with no replacements in sight, Superintendent Kendra Anderson reassured her school’s anxious principal that everything would be fine.

Then she walked the 25 feet between their two offices, sat down at her desk and said to herself: “Oh, crap.”

Anderson remembered a time — and not that long ago — when she could pick out a six-year veteran from a pile of resumes whenever she had an unexpected teaching vacancy.

“I don’t have that luxury anymore,” she said this summer, recalling the desperate situation she was in to replace a fourth of the teaching staff of the rural K-12 school in just a few months.

Anderson’s urgent need for teachers for her 230 students — half of them living in poverty in this one-stoplight Colorado town on the Eastern Plains — offers a window into how rural schools like hers are grappling with a dearth of teachers.

Otis’s challenges to keep and attract teachers are felt across the state. Low taxes make it nearly impossible to offer a competitive salary; one retired Otis teacher suggested she could make more money waiting tables. Increased regulations and unfunded mandates from the state have made the work nearly unbearable, educators say. And the school’s distance from the Front Range keep some urban solutions such as long-term substitutes or Teach For America corps out of their classrooms.

On the ground, the biggest challenge for superintendents like Anderson is the need to protect students from the most damaging impacts of the shortage, even as many of them would benefit from more resources, not fewer.

“The one thing that keeps me up at night is how we go years with some of our rural schools not having a math teacher,” said Robert Mitchell, the former director of educator preparation at the department of higher education. “These kids out here deserve the same opportunity as the kids in Boulder Valley. It’s not acceptable that we have vacancies and zero people apply.”

The problem is so pronounced that state education officials, at the legislature’s behest, fanned out across Colorado this summer — including a stop in Otis — to examine ways to turn around a shortage that is most severe in the state’s rural areas.

A plan informed by this statewide tour, which was recently completed, is due to state legislators by December.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, discusses the teacher shortage at the state’s town hall at the Otis school. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

No overflow

“Everything has to change” whenever a teacher leaves, Michelle Patterson, Otis’s principal said. The ripple effects, especially in areas with small staffs, are significant.

When the school’s agriculture teacher left this spring, administrators had to find a new teacher to take over his class sponsorship duties, which included helping students raise money for projects and providing them with emotional support through high school.

No one knew which conferences to register the Future Farmers of America club for, or which hotels to stay at when they went.

The district also had to hire a new bus driver, because the retired teacher, a 21-year veteran, had done that, too.

“It’s more than just that instruction for that content area that leaves us,” Superintendent Anderson said. “It’s the relationship with the students they developed over time. It’s the training we’ve given them that’s lost.”

The teacher shortage is both an old and new problem for rural schools.

“We’ve had a teacher shortage in rural Colorado since the 1970s,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “But we used to be able to get overflow from the metro area. Now, there’s no overflow.”

Since 2010, there’s been a 24 percent drop in graduates from the traditional teacher prep programs at the state’s colleges and universities. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment to those programs.

Alternative programs, such as residency programs, have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. However, those programs produce far fewer teachers than traditional programs and can’t keep up with demand. According to the state department of education, the state’s public schools employ more than 53,000 teachers.

The shortage is not evenly distributed across all classrooms. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

Officials believe a variety of factors are contributing to the shortage. The profession perceives that it is undervalued, and the pay in many communities does not cover basic costs of living. And as poverty rises, the scope of the job is expanding; students are coming to school with more trauma that educators must mitigate before they can even begin to teach phonics or subtraction.

Rural schools face additional challenges attracting new teachers away from urban centers.

Housing is in short supply — so much so that some school districts are building their own housing for teachers.

And while the cost of living might seem lower in rural areas, “gas, groceries and health insurance all are more expensive,” Anderson said. “We travel a long way to the grocery store, to work. The nearest Walmart is 50 miles away.”

It can also be lonely, especially for recent college graduates without any family nearby.

Caitlin Evans is Otis’s new high school English teacher. She sits in her barren classroom before the start of the school year. Evans was issued an emergency license so she could teach. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A tale of two Otis teachers

Peggy Allen was one of the five Otis teachers to leave the classroom this spring.

Allen, who taught English, began her career in Otis as a secretary. After 17 years of running the school district’s office, she went to college to become a teacher.

“I loved teaching,” she said as she finished her lunch in Mama’s, Otis’s single restaurant, which also serves as its de facto town square. “You build a personal relationship with everyone at the school and in town. Everybody knows your business — and needs. We take care of each other.”

But after 12 years in the classroom, the 65-year-old decided to retire.

“I saw younger people with vigor and energy, and I thought: ‘I don’t have that anymore,’” she said.

Increased state regulations also became a burden. “I didn’t love jumping through all the hoops,” she said.

To find a replacement for Allen, Anderson reached out to a national network of principals and school officials she’s built through the years.

One woman who Anderson met at a conference several years ago had a daughter, Caitlin Evans, who had moved to a town 40 miles east of Otis. Evans, 33, had been teaching at Morgan Community College and was interested in switching to high schoolers.

Evans grew up in Brighton, a blue collar suburb of Denver. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Colorado. She remembers feeling far behind some of her fellow freshmen who attended East Coast prep schools.

Evans was excited about better preparing rural students for college to compete with their urban peers.

“If I can be a bridge for them, that’s a good thing,” she said.

But Evans had a newborn and no teaching license. So Anderson went to work helping her find childcare and working with state education officials to issue Evans an emergency license.

The state this year has issued 30 emergency licenses, which allow individuals to teach without meeting some state requirements.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, earlier this year sponsored a bill that would have allowed rural school districts like Otis to waive out of the state’s licensing practices all together. It was an idea that was backed by the Rural School Alliance but faced staunch opposition from the state’s teachers union. That opposition forced Wilson to spike his own bill.

Licensing reform, an issue that has vexed lawmakers and the governor alike, is likely to come up as the state education and higher education departments move forward with their plan to curb the shortage. But Superintendent Anderson is wary.

“I don’t want to give the perception that it’s easier to be a teacher than any other profession,” she said.

Otis school leaders were able to fill all of their vacancies, in part because Evans was issued an emergency license. However, it’s only good for one academic year. Anderson is already worrying about how to keep Evans in the classroom next year.

Farm equipment sit outside the Otis school, which is sandwiched between a Baptist church and a wheat farm. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

“We just need the resources”

More than 40 people showed up to the Otis school, which sits between a Baptist church and a corn, wheat and millet farm, for the state’s town hall on the teacher shortage.

In the audience were several members of the Otis community, including two school board members. There were executives from Denver-based education nonprofits. Educators from other Eastern Plains communities such as a principal from Julesburg and teachers from Yuma also attended.

State officials pleaded with the audience to focus on solutions — especially low-cost solutions. That doesn’t mean salary increases are off the table, the state officials said. It just means that everyone knows that teachers in the low tax state of Colorado could make a lot more money yet still trail far behind national average salaries.

This school year will be the first Otis teachers see a pay increase since the Great Recession. The starting salary will be $31,666. The average salary for an Otis teacher is $36,468, administrators said. And the highest paid teacher, a long time veteran, earns $46,258.

Part of the reason why the school district was able to afford the raises out of its $3.4 million budget was because of a rare savings in health care costs.

Anderson called it a gamble.

As the town hall began to wind down, Shea Smith, the Otis guidance counselor, snuck out and returned to her office, where she was preparing for the first day of school.

She and another teacher, Tenaly Bleak, reflected on the intersection of the teacher shortage and the changing demographics of their students.

As it becomes increasingly expensive to live along the Front Range, families are seeking low-cost housing on the plains. Since 2011, the school’s free or reduced-price lunch rate, a measure of poverty, has nearly doubled to 56 percent. Last year, the school enrolled its first homeless student. And there’s a good chance the school will need to hire a second special education teacher because a few new students with special needs enrolled this summer.

Smith, who has been in the Otis school for nine years, remembers the last time the school tried to hire a special education teacher. The job remained vacant for three years until the school’s leadership decided to take the job posting down and just do without.

As poverty has risen in Otis, teachers have taken on another role: caretaker.

“Somedays, the most you can do is love them and feed them and make them feel safe, and hope you can get a little reading in, and a little math in,” Smith said.

It’s unclear how student performance has shifted as poverty has increased in Otis. Poor students historically do not score as highly as their more affluent peers. Not enough Otis students are taking the state’s test for the state education department to report the results and provide a quality rating. 

The role poverty is playing in the classroom and the stress it has put on educators has been highlighted by Education Commissioner Katy Anthes.

Teachers are reporting to the department that “they’re spending more time on management and organization and meeting the basic needs of students than they ever have before,” Anthes told the State Board of Education at its August meeting.

So what can the state do to keep teachers from fleeing Otis and other rural school districts?

Bleak said more support would go a long way. For instance, she suggested, establishing a special fund for school supplies and candy that teachers can hand out would save her $100 a month, she guessed.

“We care,” she said. “We want to do the best job possible. We just need the resources.”

An intersection in Otis, Colorado. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.

SED VS. NYSUT

With changes coming to New York’s teacher evaluations, union and state officials prepare to clash

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York’s education policymakers got a lesson Monday in how treacherous it will to be revamp the state’s highly controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Just minutes after the state education commissioner laid out a detailed plan for coming up with a redesigned system by fall of 2019, a state teachers-union official rebuffed it. Arguing that teachers cannot wait another year for fixes to a rating system they say is fatally flawed, the union will ask lawmakers to change the underlying evaluation law this year, the official said.

In fact, she said, the union won’t even ask its members to take a department survey meant to gather feedback on the current system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations and other measures of what students are learning.

“First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, in a conversation with reporters after the state outlined its plan. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.”

Even as state policymakers face political opposition from the teachers union — which has long opposed using state test scores to judge teachers, as was required by a 2015 state law — they are likely to run into practical challenges as well.

Any effort to come up with statewide alternative assessments to use in evaluations could prove too costly at a time of fiscal uncertainty for the state. And major changes to the system could require reopening the evaluation law, which sparked a fierce backlash when it was passed. So far, lawmakers have not indicated that doing so is a priority, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want to avoid such drama during an election year.

“We have lived in a very toxic landscape,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said Monday during the Regents’ monthly meeting, where state officials laid out their redesign plan. “I think that we have to be so mindful and so strategic and so intentional in our plan.”

The 2015 law — which Cuomo aggressively pushed for after calling the previous evaluation system “baloney” — weakened the role of local districts and teachers unions in crafting teacher ratings, instead shifting more authority to the state. That opened the door for ratings that relied much more heavily on student test scores — a move fiercely opposed by the unions, which worked to fuel the state’s massive parent-led boycott of the state exams.

In response to the backlash, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. Instead, districts must find different measures of teacher effectiveness.

But now, the teachers union wants to repeal the state law entirely, and return evaluations back to local districts. Doing so would allow educators to help design systems that take into account unique conditions in each district — and to likely greatly reduce or eliminate the role of test scores in teacher ratings.

“We believe local control is the key,” DiBrango said. “What will work in one school district will not work in another.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia did not rule out returning control of evaluations back to districts. But the lengthy redesign plan she laid Monday seemed aimed at improving the statewide system.

The state will form two redesign workgroups, state officials said. One will concentrate on the components of evaluations, including whether there should be classroom observations, tests, or other ways to judge teachers — and how much weight to give each part. The other group will focus on how student learning is measured, which may include developing new tests.

The education department will also continue to collect feedback from teachers through a survey, which 9,000 educators have already completed. However, DiBrango said the union will not encourage any additional teachers to take the survey in part because they were not consulted about the survey questions, which she said leads teachers into choosing among predetermined ways to evaluate them.

“We have not encouraged our teachers to necessarily take the survey if they don’t want to,” DiBrango said. “They have free will, so certainly some will take it and some will choose not to.”

As the union and the education department pursue their competing plans, the legislature could prove to be a serious roadblock.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have indicated that their top focus this legislative session is beating back funding cuts from Washington — not revisiting a deeply controversial law that is technically on hold until the moratorium ends next year.

On Monday, Elia suggested that her department may be able to make certain adjustments to the evaluation system without changing the law. Still, any major changes would likely require a new law. However, the department’s plan to present its redesign proposal by spring 2019 would give lawmakers little time to debate the proposed changes before the end of their legislative session.

Even if department officials could get lawmakers on board, a new evaluation system — with new tests — could prove too costly to adopt.

Officials recently said they would not join a federal program to create alternative state assessments because it would cost too much. On Monday, Elia said any new tests tied to teacher evaluations wouldn’t necessarily have to be given to as many students as the annual state exams, so they may be less costly.

Still, Regent Judith Chin, who chairs the board’s workgroup that focuses on standards and assessments, questioned whether the state could feasibly create a whole new set of tests to use for teacher ratings that would be ready for the 2019 school year.

“Is it realistic that we could build that capacity in a short period of time?” Chin asked.